Sunday, July 22, 2012

Clinging to Hope

It’s funny how we remember the picture books our parents read to us when we were children. I remember one entitled “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” It begins,

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there’s gum in my hair, and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible horrible no good very bad day.

When I became an adult, I quickly realized that terrible horrible no good very bad days still happen--they just get a lot more expensive!

In Acts 27, we see a Christian believer, namely the Apostle Paul, do several things well during severe duress: (a) remain transfixed on the sovereignty of God, (b) praise God during the peak of a calamitous storm, and (c) rise from obscurity to lead a contingent of the most ungodly passengers.

Storms, Shipwrecks, and Snakebites
Acts chapters 27 and 28 read like a fast-paced novella. First Paul, Luke, Julius the Roman Centurion, and the prisoners were driven far off their path by a furious storm (27:27). Second, the sailors attempt to escape the doomed ship, leaving the others to die (27:30-32). Third, the ship struck a reef, was run aground, and was destroyed by the surf (27:41). Fourth, there is a murder plot by the soldiers to kill Paul and his fellow prisoners (27:42). And finally as if that wasn’t enough—Paul is bitten by a poisonous viper (28:1-10). This series of events is enough to fray the nerves and destroy the composure of any grown man.

Here are two factors outside your control: the sovereignty of God and the depravity of sinful men. Try as you might to labor, manipulate, finagle, and coax God and others—we are very much at the mercy of these two forces. However this is not to say that your life is like that Alexandrian grain ship in Acts 27, smashed between the surf of destiny and the rocks of fate. There is one factor that you can control in the midst of the life's hurricanes: your response.

I believe it is possible to discern the difference between a mature and immature Christian by what questions they ask during storms, shipwrecks, and snakebites.
  • Unbelievers and immature Christians ask “What is God doing TO me?”
  • But the mature Christian—who knows both the power of God and the decadence of man-- asks a different question entirely, “What is God doing THROUGH me?”
The thing I like most about Acts 27:33-38 is the absurdity of this scene. Picture this: the ship is three verses away from being smashed to pieces. By the time the sun rises in the sky, every man on that boat will be clinging to boards and paddling for shore. And yet the Apostle Paul—a prisoner himself—decides to host a picnic! And who are the guests? All 276 men aboard including sailors, soldiers, and prisoners. I cannot think of a more ungodly list of dinner guests.

Yet in the midst of the hurricane, with both natural and human evil tearing the ship apart, we see the Apostle Paul--with chains on his wrists--speaking the words of Jesus (“not a hair on your head will perish,” cf. Matthew 10:30 and Luke 21:18), and imitating the compassionate deeds of Jesus (taking bread, thanking God, breaking and eating the bread; cf. Matthew 15:36). With this simple gesture with bread, Paul is pointing to Christ as his supreme joy in the midst of the storm.

Just a simple loaf of bread! That’s all Paul had in his hands for which to give thanks while the ship sinks! It’s not even toasted bread! No jam to slab on it. No coffee in which to dip it. Not a daub of butter on deck anywhere to be found! Just month-old bread. Did anyone see a “Panera” restaurant anywhere in this passage? It’s probably even a bit wet from the sea and the storm. Possibly a bit green with mold. Likely it was stored fore weeks in a barrel or cargo hold somewhere. Just three Christians, Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus and a hoard of pagans, in one of the most unlikely worship services on the biblical record.

And in the midst of the storm, for just a few moments, there is a wonderful, worshipful, thankful, silence. Just 276 men silently chewing their sea-nasty bread. "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). 

I love how chapter 27 ends with these words: “And so it was that all were brought safely to land.” Safely? Is that a bit of an overstatement? I don’t think so.

It seems that, despite the storm, God carried out His merciful plan and honored His promises after all. It turns out God is a good and merciful God. He really does work all things according to the council of His perfect will. If you are in Christ, there is no safer place in the universe then in the center of His plan.

At some point in your life, like Alexander in the children’s book my mother read to me, you may find yourself having a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” You may find yourself drifting in the open water clinging to a splintered board. But if you are in Christ, there is no safer place in the world.  

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